A short story by Vera Hadzic.
It was a big house, a hulking, overworn, grumbling house, bunched up beneath pale skies. It had an old magnificence to it – something in the ripple of the stonework, in the elegant arch of tall windows, in the needles of slender chimneys, each one wreathed in silvery smoke; in the way the angles and lines were faded and set with time, fingered with shawls of ivy. I was intimidated to stand in front of it – almost as though I was beneath it. Under it. As though it had already eaten me up.
“Paola!” The mistress of the house stood at the top of the steps. I couldn’t see her face – just the fiery, golden glow of the house swallowing her from behind. “I’m glad you’re here. Why don’t you come in? Tyler’s waiting for you.”
Tyler Heaventon – a boy with speckled cheeks, with hair that clawed into his eyes, and soft, papery skin. He bruised easily. Everyone knew that – he was a clumsy kid, always running into lockers, tripping over his own shoes, inexplicably making his desk collapse over his knees. Sometimes, he looked like a painting – a Jackson Pollock in the worst light, and in the best, the gentle purples and blues and faded yellows of a Monet. Last year, his mother had stormed into school, furious about the bruise on her son’s temple, the size of a mango – he’d only gotten hit by a soccer ball.
“Thank you so much for coming. He’s bright, you know, but I think he’s having trouble adjusting. I know you’re busy,” murmured his mother as she led me into her house. Now, Tyler needed math tutoring. In school, I rarely saw him – he would hang in the corner of the cafeteria, like a butterfly hovering at the edge of the garden.
The house was no less voracious from the inside – entire hurricanes of dust particles spun between my head and those soaring ceilings, each atom stretching to fill all that space. At any moment, I expected to disappear under the floorboards. To be gulped down and digested.
“You’re graduating! Have you decided on a university?”
I’d tutored other kids, but usually, I sat on their beds, or pulled up a chair next to their desks, or bent over their notes on the kitchen table. This was the first time I found myself settling into an enormous study, a great, heaving lung of a room. Its walls curved under the weight of all the books – its ceiling swelled under the noise of all the words.
“Hi, Paola,” said Tyler.
“Hey,” I said. I tried to shake the feeling of being about to sink into the velvet of the chair. I came back, week after week, to help Tyler with his math. We started with polynomials. I could only forget about the house when working with Tyler – there was a comfort in the tiny squares on his graph paper, in the slim line of his pencils. We wrote out equations and I drew the lines. They dove across the paper in clean, slick strokes, each driven by its own current.
Some nights, there were others in the house. I learned that the Heaventons threw parties now and again. While Tyler and I sketched graphs and penciled numbers into little grey squares, the house would thrum and shiver with musical heartbeats, with balloons of colour and sound leaking under the door.
“When translating horizontally, you’ll use the opposite operation of what’s written in the equation,” I explained to Tyler. “See? So f(x+3)…”
He drew his graphs with a shaky hand, and didn’t say much except to tell me when he didn’t understand. From his mother, I discovered that it was Mr. Lincoln, his math teacher, who had recommended me as a tutor. He had been my teacher for years – a man shaped like a lightbulb, with a wiry body, tangled limbs, an elliptical head. We spoke easily together, comfortably: he thought I had a bright mind and a wealth of potential.
Each time my car coughed me out at the Heaventons’ doorstep, the glowering house seemed more likely to engulf me. It was hard to maintain a sense of self as I passed through the huge doors, to keep all my molecules together as I walked on carpeted floors. The ceilings in the study seemed higher and higher with each visit. And the parties got louder and louder, until I was convinced they were stretching the very stone of the house.
We moved on to factoring. That was easy: Tyler caught on quickly. As the party raged, I demonstrated how the numbers fit together, how you could split an equation apart in so many ways, and then sew it smoothly together. How to pick your x’s from gnarled trees and toss them into baskets to dangle on your arm. We grinned in small, careful smiles as Tyler raced through factoring by decomposition – as he cut each trinomial cleanly, as though it was a log of wood, hacked by an axe. Next came quadratics.
“The quadratic formula is one of the most useful things you’ll learn,” I promised Tyler as we sat in the study. We recited it over and over again until it stuck on his tongue, clung to the pores in his mouth. I thought of it like a gold pan – it curved under the sediments of numbers in the river-bed, and I could whirl them around, and at the bottom of the pan would glint my nuggets of gold, my solutions for x. More than once I’d thought the world would be a simpler place if you could solve all its problems with the quadratic equation. Like choosing a university. Mr. Lincoln was the only adult who didn’t ask me if I had made up my mind whenever he saw me.
The parties continued – they frightened and captivated me. They produced such formidable swellings of sound, sagging against the door, against the floorboards, but I could find no reason behind them, no pattern for when they were held. I was comfortable with math – with the numbers and equations and graphs we sketched together. It anchored me in that big house. Tyler had a trigonometry test coming up. I could see in the way his veins twitched under his onion-thin skin that he was anxious – not ready, not confident. We spent hours hunched over his notes. Sine curves meandered over the graph paper like snakes with metal scales.
By the time we finished, the sound of the party had pressed itself up, sweaty and melodic, to the study door, and as I turned the knob, I worried that it would collapse over me, a massive ball of colour and light cracking open like an egg on my head, spilling its musical yolk all over my body. I passed into the hallway. There was no one around. I wondered where the party was. And then, I couldn’t stop wondering.
Shoving my breath back down into my lungs, I turned deeper into the house, past yellowy walls and wood panels and portraits etched with antiquity, until finally I found a film of shimmery gold seeping out from behind a pair of massive doors. I couldn’t turn back anymore: I stepped close and edged the door open a crack.
I nearly went dizzy from the blur of vividness inside – wheels of colour and light dancing through the space, like a kaleidoscope. As my eyes adjusted, I could see better: the floor was like a sheet of gold, rippling under the weight of so many footsteps, and the walls washed over with soft hues. The ballroom was filled with people – people dressed like flowers, shrouded in tufts of fabric, people in suits like the black and white keys on a piano. There must have been a band somewhere, but I couldn’t see it – I could only hear the swirls of sound, radiant and loose-tongued and blood-warming, trumpets and flutes and drums and strings all swaying in a bright, vibrating web. The people danced in it, wove through it, leaned and bent and crooked their shoulders in it, talked over it in voices pumped with breath. Each one of them had a glass in their hand. A part of me longed to go in – but I couldn’t cross the doorway.
As I left that night, the house seemed to frown over me even more, sinking its old roots ever deeper into the ground.
In those days, Mr. Lincoln’s math class was grounding to me. Shoulders rounded over my desk, head lowering closer and closer to the table, pencil skittering at the paper. Thinking. I liked derivatives. They folded in my hands like puzzle boxes, smoothing the wrinkles on my palms. Mostly, I appreciated that they made sense. I heard people say that Tyler was like an apple that had tumbled from someone’s pocket and become splotched with brown. When kids played soccer at lunch, he watched from the side because no one wanted to be the reason behind a badge on his face, or on his arm.
“Mrs. Heaventon will come down to the principal’s office like a bat out of hell if you rough him up,” they whispered. “Even if it was by accident.”
Too soon, I was back at the house. The evening was shallow and colourless above its thin chimneys. The long hallways rang with silence as the house chewed on me: no party tonight. I helped Tyler draw tan functions.
“Don’t forget to draw your asymptotes,” I warned, stifling a yawn. The function will come infinitely close to the asymptote, but never touch. I thought of how the kids at school would let Tyler drift, like a ghost, along the edge of the soccer field, shoes never brushing the line. He never asked to join. Since last year, no one invited him in.
I screwed up some courage: “What’s up with the parties you guys have all the time?”
Tyler’s bony shoulders scrunched up. “People just come.”
“What are they for?”
“Don’t go in,” Tyler said coldly. “Believe me. It’s dangerous.”
Something curled and festered in my chest, something dark and frightened. I remembered pressing myself up against the door, eyes peeled on the sea of light and sound and people within, unable to step over the line of the doorway.
“You looked, didn’t you?” Tyler sighed. “Stay away from them. Please.”
“What are they for?” I asked.
He didn’t reply. All I could hear was the scritch-scratch of his pencil. Finally, he said: “Whatever you do, don’t drink.”
“It’s vile,” he said, lip twisting. “What they have in their glasses. It does things to you. Remakes you. Paola, stay away from it all.”
But still the parties magnetized me. As the weeks passed and the weather changed, every stray thought was drawn to them – the mystery of what they were drinking. November nights were thicker, and the dark sky seemed to settle into every cranny of stone and window and chimney. Slushy snow snuck into the soles of my shoes, and ran in muddy rivulets down the hill as I crossed from the car to the house.
Watching the parties had become a habit. The balloons of sound heaving against the study’s closed door no longer oppressed me – now it was a temptation. As soon as Tyler and I were finished, I had to contain the skip in my steps as I headed to the ballroom door. Each night, I crouched longer and longer, listening to the clink of glasses. Tyler’s words rolled through my head like marbles, but I couldn’t stay away – there was something dark, something perverted about the ballroom, something fascinating.
I even considered asking Mr. Lincoln about the Heaventons’ parties. He would understand why I had to know: it was like a problem I had been wrestling with, an elusive x hidden under layers of equation, digging under my skin. Tyler took to watching me carefully, suspiciously, from the further reaches of the cafeteria – a bruise bloomed under his left eye like a blue rose.
One night, like many others, I found myself backing out of the study, and racing down the hallway to haunt the ballroom door. Tyler had been working on rational expressions, discovering the divine satisfaction of cancelling out terms. I had explained that if we were to graph the function, every zero in the denominator was an asymptote – a line it could get infinitely close to, but never touch. Tyler had begun to ask me questions, to say more than “Hi, Paola” every time we met. He had questions about the spirals of numbers in the universe, and sometimes I lingered to answer them – sometimes I had to fight the itch to get to the party so that I could stay behind and talk about infinity and zero and irrationality.
But now, I thought, I’m here.
I had just sidled up to the door when – it opened. Out came a woman with a dress green like moss and russet hair piled like a fiery mountain on her head. I stood frozen as she shut the door behind her, took a sip of her drink. A golden liquid wet her lips.
“Paola.” She seemed surprised. “Are you finished with Tyler for tonight?”
“Yes,” I said. “Sorry. I was just on my way out.”
She said nothing, so I began to retrace my steps down the hallway, mind spinning with new questions that I didn’t dare ask. The house seemed to widen around me, growing ever larger, eager to snap its jaws shut with me inside.
“Wait,” Mrs. Heaventon called. “Can you do something for me, Paola?”
“Of course,” I said.
“I can’t do this tonight,” she said.
“The party,” Mrs. Heaventon closed her eyes, breathed out through her nose. “I’m exhausted.”
“You should rest,” I suggested. “They can’t need you there all the time.”
“Someone needs to pour the drinks,” she explained. “Would you mind, Paola? Just for one night?”
I couldn’t say no. Even as Tyler’s words of warning coursed through my brain, I couldn’t say no. In a corner of the vast, disapproving house, I pulled off my jeans and sweater and slid myself into Mrs. Heaventon’s moss-green dress and took her empty glass in hand. Then I was stepping into the ballroom – my own steps sending tremors across the golden floor, feeling the pull and the press of the music around my shoulders. There was magic in being there: in being inside, part of an incomprehensible thing. The bubbling elation in my chest couldn’t be measured, counted, calculated.
At the back of the room was a long table, and on it, three golden bottles. My breath settled wet and hot over my lips. Even as I took my spot and folded my hand around the neck of the bottle, a surge of guests started toward me. I could barely register their faces – they blurred together, mouths and noses and cheeks, until only the pleading, the desire in their eyes stood out. Some of them, I thought I recognized – people I’d seen in town, people I had spoken to.
I poured the potion in each glass as it was thrust toward me. Mrs. Heaventon’s advice was a feeble thread at the back of my mind, overpowered by the swinging of the music and the wonder of the room – Don’t spill a drop. And whatever you do, don’t drink.
It didn’t smell of alcohol. Golden, viscous, I was enchanted by the liquid as it cascaded from bottle to glass, bottle to glass, more times than I could count. I barely had time to look up, to see the guests tilt their necks and drink.
“Paola,” said a familiar voice. I looked up, let my eyes focus. Mr. Lincoln’s face, outlined in warmth, in clean lines, met my gaze. “Good to see you.”
In an instant, he was gone, melting back into the sea of people, and suddenly Tyler’s warnings seemed made of gauze, of feathers, easily blown away. This was Mr. Lincoln – a man touched by grace, by goodness, someone I’d trusted and looked up to for years. That he could be connected to something bad was unthinkable – impossible. Illogical. Still I poured, over and over again, until my arms ached.
And then, all at once, the room emptied – the guests streamed out, the music stopped, and silence spread over every surface.
Mystified, I traveled across the empty ballroom, my steps resonating against gold. The guests had disappeared – the halls of the big, old house were empty. Even my clothes weren’t where I had left them, and Tyler had long left the study. I supposed I would have to wait until next time to return the green dress to Mrs. Heaventon. A clock droned nearby – a quarter to three.
I hadn’t noticed the time passing.
My car keys chimed in my pocket, and I figured it was time to go home. But I thought of the golden bottles waiting on the table, and of how there was no one around. In a moment, I was running – green skirts swimming around my legs, heart pounding. Here were the doors – the gold-floored ballroom – the table with its three shining bottles. It all greeted me with the same glittering emptiness. I stopped at the table, reached out, uncorked a bottle.
I hesitated for only a moment – a split-second where I thought back to Tyler. But I was here, and Mr. Lincoln had been here, and I had yearned for so long to know what it tasted like.
“Just one drop,” I told myself.
My lips molded to the mouth of the bottle and I took a single sip.
I almost can’t describe how it felt. Ropes, ribbons of sensation wove through my limbs, glazed all my bones in brightness and honey-soft warmth. I felt globules of light frothing in my bloodstream, singing through my muscles, lettering all my organs in gold – I felt their buzz leaving footprints, leaves of magic over my ribs, in my lungs, loosening the knots in my throat and the tensions in my spine.
The bottle slipped from my fingers. I let out a cry as I watched it plummet, like a juggler’s club, to the floor. It fractured into infinite pieces, into countless slivers of light, and the potion melted into the gold floor, splattering over my shoes.
I turned to see who had caught me – Tyler. Rumpled and disheveled from sleep, he looked as fragile as ever, but a firmness radiated from him. Shame stole across my gut, yet I didn’t know what to say.
“It’s okay,” Tyler said for me. Behind the sheet of hair, his eyes were stern.
“What is it?” I breathed. “What’s in the drink?”
“Does it matter?” He looked pained. “Go home, Paola.”
By the time I left, I was more alive than I had ever been. My every movement was sharp and clear; my eyes could pick out the freshest details that had escaped me that same morning.
The feeling of wind on my face and of starlight on my fingers and water on my head were heavenly, sublime in a simple way. And math? Easier than ever. Page after page, question after question, x after x, I was unstoppable. Never had my mind been so clear, my body so light. Never had the world made so much sense.
For days after, Mrs. Heaventon’s green dress hung listlessly in my bedroom. Impatiently, I waited for a call to come back – a call from Tyler. I plunged myself into calculus and insisted that I wanted to go back and help him with his math, but the truth was that I wanted another taste of euphoria. In school, Tyler still hovered at the edges of the cafeteria, the line of the soccer field, drifting ever closer to his asymptote, yet never crossing. I wanted to tell him how beautiful it was on the other side – how he could touch it, even if the math didn’t say so. How he could cross.
It took two days for it to fade completely, for the magic to trickle out of my body until I could no longer feel the tingle in my fingers, the gold in my veins. And when the last of it was gone, I got in my car and drove to the house. I was relieved when I heard the familiar heaving breath of the party.
I scaled the steps and let myself in. The house seemed hungrier than ever: its windows glared down at me, its chimneys wagged like disapproving fingers, and the walls seemed to recoil from my very presence. But I had come for euphoria, and wouldn’t leave until I got it.
“Paola? I didn’t think we were supposed to have a lesson today.” Tyler’s voice made me jump out of my skin. He seemed to have peeled out of the wallpaper, out of thin air.
“I’m – here for the party,” I managed at last.
“You shouldn’t go in,” Tyler said immediately. He took a step forward and I saw the tremble in his lip when he pleaded, “Paola, please don’t go.”
“I have to,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“No, you can’t,” he begged. There was a bruise on his chin and I thought it was throbbing as he spoke. “It’s not good for you. It’s – it’ll take control of you. Leave while you still can. Before it changes you.”
“It’s not that bad,” I told him solidly. “Mr. Lincoln drinks it. It’s euphoria.”
“Can’t good people do bad things?” Shadows sank into the angles of Tyler’s face. “Please, Paola. I don’t want to lose you to that.”
“Lose your math tutor?”
“Lose a friend,” Tyler said.
“You won’t lose me. I’ll still be here. I’m here now, aren’t I?”
Tyler shook his head and moved in front of me, blocking the hallway. I stepped forward; he held his ground. In another step, we were nose-to-nose: tendrils of fire, of anger, scuttled against the walls of my stomach.
“Move, Tyler!” Without letting him reply, I charged forward – and he stumbled back, and back, and back, until the ballroom door was so close, within arm’s reach. Behind his thin, papery silhouette, I could see the light suffusing out from inside, the gold just waiting for me, so close – not touching.
I screamed and lurched at him – he caught me with his slim frame, tried to hold me back with his skinny arms, but I was too strong for him, too impassioned. In a minute, I had slammed him to the door, had buried his spine in the wood. The ballroom door vibrated from the impact – the gold light pooling from its cracks crept into our shoes – and with a fury I’d never known before, I raised my hand to hit him.
I imagined my palm crashing down, slicing across his narrow face. In my mind’s eye, I could feel his skin crisping at the whip of my fingers, could see the rips carving into the architecture of his cheek. Tomorrow at school, there would be a bruise there: another daub of paint, of colour, purple and aching and sore.
“See?” whispered Tyler, eyes trained to the palm of my hand. “You’ve already changed.”
“You don’t understand,” I said. “It’s – it’s euphoria.”
“Paola,” he said, “it isn’t.” Tyler Heaventon hugged me, hugged me as though I was a friend he had known all his life. And I thought that I might be the first person at school to have ever touched the boy who bruised like an apple, whose skin was splotched with colour like the stained-glass wings of a butterfly.
I left that night with a stillness in me. The math tutoring lasted a few more months: just the two of us in that enormous study. Friends. Then the Heaventons left: they moved away, leaving the great house empty. Never to return. Rumours would sweep through town, through school, but no one would truly have an answer. Most of us didn’t need one. I never got much of an explanation from Tyler, but I did get a goodbye – and what more could I have asked for?
Still, the house glowered over the hill, soaking in the sky, its roots hooking into the earth. Still, the parties continued in its bowels, though with Mrs. Heaventon gone, I often wondered who poured the drink. Some nights, I would sit on the house’s steps, and let its temper massage my shoulders, and map out the stars as though they were points on a graph. Functions weaving through time and space, like silver worms, like threads through a patchwork quilt. I thought most of all about Tyler, the kid with hair over his eyes and papery skin whom I had taught about asymptotes. The kid who had taught me how to cross them and come back.
Vera Hadzic an emerging writer from Ottawa, Ontario, studying English literature at the University of Ottawa. In the past, her work has been published in Bywords.ca and Crow & Cross Keys.